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Missing: The Fliers Of 9/11, The Lives Behind The Photographs‍

The air is terrible. Everything smells like burning. Some of what we’re breathing is bodies. It has to be.

September 11, 2019

Pamela Rafalow Grossman
// Union Square, New York City // By Michael Thompson. Taken September 18th, 2001

September 28th, 2001

I have to say something about the fliers — the fliers with photos of people who haven’t been heard from since September 11th; the fliers with headings like Help Us Find… or Have You Seen My Daddy? or, simply, Missing. Before these fliers are gone from this city, I have to say something about how it’s been to live among them.

At first I wondered if it was only me seeking them out — a flier taped to a telephone pole, a flier on the glass of a bus shelter — but then I saw that we were all veering toward them on the streets. By the end of the third day, they had woven through every public space downtown, brightly colored and clustered together. We stood in front of them at length, staring with hope and dread and fear and a brand-new kind of love.

The earliest fliers were made, it seemed, less with hope than in belief that the person gone might soon be found. How could there not be a chance? Wounded in the disaster, he or she might still have been alive somewhere — maybe without ID, maybe unable to speak or to remember. Possibly someone would make a connection. Possibly someone would call.

In a city that lacks personal space and therefore embraces privacy, the fliers list work phone numbers, home phone numbers, for all to see — Any time, 24 hours. The identifying details they offer, too, are private. Three months pregnant. Caesarian scar. Her wedding ring is engraved Nick, his watch Truly, madly, passionately T.

Even if we had actually known them, we still would have been unlikely to know these truths about their lives.

As days passed, the drive to find was mixed with a fervent need to tell. Descriptions began to include details like beautiful smile. We learned that he was a God-praying man and that loved ones called her Pooh. You are loved and will always be loved reads one flier. Another, We need him in our lives.

September 9, 2019 // a memory

I am leaving my apartment. My partner asks where I’m headed. I look at him in silence for a few beats.

I suspect my answer will be upsetting, a clear sign that I am struggling and not OK. But I am struggling; I am far from OK and this doesn’t seem a time to pretend otherwise. “I’m going to be with the fliers,” I say. “I just want to — be with them.”

“You’re not going to do anything else?”

“I’ll do whatever comes up to do, once I’m there.”

His look says, “Are you all right?” and mine answers, “No.”

I head out — to get to a spot, any spot, where the fliers are; and then to help anyone I can, once I am there.

A few days after, I will start volunteering downtown in official capacities. I will continue for more than six months. But to begin, I needed to do this — to be with the fliers. I needed to see them, see them and see who might find me, who might need me. Go from there.

New York City // modified from duluoz cats

The Honeyz Miss You, Ronnie. Hurry home.

A flier written by his brother: Tattoo of a panther on left forearm, looks more like a dog’s head. A flier written by her mother: Long, thick eyelashes.

He is described as the father of four beautiful children. The photo of his family shows it to be true.

I recognize her name from a newspaper. In an interview, her boyfriend called her the best girl you could imagine.

Has a South African accent. Has an Australian accent. Has a Polish accent.

Heavy legs. I had to smile when I saw that, imagining the woman in the photo being found, getting well, and living to ask someone she loves if that really mattered for her description.

He was a police officer. The article included on his flier describes how he saved youth from death leap seven years ago.

She is laughing vigorously in a bridesmaid’s dress; she looks so graceful with her wedding veil.

In a kiddie pool with his toddler; in her graduation cap, having finished college last spring; on a beach with leis around her neck; in Paris, the Eiffel Tower behind him, his camera in his hand.

They have every imaginable type of outfit, hairstyle, and skin tone. I can’t help but feel something like civic pride in how attractive and vibrant these people are, the flair and vitality they display.

September 9, 2019 // a memory

The air is terrible. Everything smells like burning. Burning and chemicals, I say to my father on the phone. He’s an hour north, near where I grew up. The air there is undisturbed. And Dad. Some of what we’re breathing is bodies. It has to be.

My father is a physician. A scientist. He considers what I have said. Well, Pam, he responds, I think that would be a relatively small percentage.

He is waving; she is beginning to raise her hand to stop the picture; he is blowing out birthday candles.

He and he and she are smiling up from their desks.

Expecting his first child this week.

With a cat sitting on his shoulder; cradling a dog in her arms.

If you see him, could you call to us please.

She was the fire warden for her office

A stranger beside me points to a flier and says, I know him. He hadn’t gotten word, until this moment, that his former co-worker was missing. I am so sorry. So am I.

Two women and one man are posting fliers at night in Union Square for someone I myself know — newer to the city, a recent friend; someone I had looked forward to spending more time with. Someone almost exactly my age. A gifted musician, he’d been temping to pay the bills. I had heard that he was missing, via email, the day before.

I have to approach this group. They are relatives of his, it turns out. They have driven hours to be here, to do anything they can. I tell them that he is — making sure to say is — a wonderful guy. Candles burn all around us, everyone responding while not yet believing. They lean into me, and we cry.

September 9, 2019 // a memory

This friend is the only one of these people on the fliers I got to meet in life. We hugged hello, goodbye; I watched and heard him play banjo.

He was very good-looking. His arrival in NYC generated the kind of enthusiasm among many single women his age that the arrival of a cute, straight, kind, and creative single guy who pays his bills often will. He seemed confused about it. He didn’t understand the fuss.

I won’t meet those other people, not a one of them. I will never know what they did or did not understand. But our friend’s flier has been on our refrigerator for 18 years now. Hello, hello; rejecting any goodbye.

New York City // Bus Shelter opposite St Vincent’s Hospital // By North Sullivan

Fliers line the insides of phone booths; their faces and faces and faces look into ours as we fish for quarters, as we speak.

He was an EMT, last seen responding to the call.

Please call his fiancee with any information.

I have never seen a prouder-looking mother, her cheerful baby girl giggling on her lap.

He was a minister; he was a chef; he was a sculptor.

One flier was amended: Found — Go with God — RIP

Before obituaries or memorials, before anyone was supposed to know what to say or do or think, we had these fliers, glimpses into what was felt. Through two and a half weeks, a few hard rains, and a series of glorious days that no one could appreciate, they are still with us; and this city will feel that much emptier, that much more bereft when they are gone.

I read of a four-year-old girl who saw people falling from the towers as she and her mother stood at a window of their apartment.

Don’t worry, the girl said. Someone will catch them. Turning to the fliers — again and again — that is what we’re trying to do.

The air is terrible. Everything smells like burning. Some of what we’re breathing is bodies. It has to be.

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